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‘Three Japanese Short Stories’ by Akutagawa & Others (Penguin Modern #5)

My second read (actually third in order read but second I review) for Dolce Belezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 12 was the fifth installment in the Penguin Modern series.

Despite its short length, this slim volume is packed with three short stories which are very different from one another, each one representative of a different aspect of Japanese literature at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, all translated by Jay Rubin.  38727862

The first story, ‘Behind the Prison’ by Nagai Kafu, is a lyrical monologue written in the form of a letter the protagonist writes to his Excellency. The story is filled with beautiful descriptions of nature, as well as musings on the traditional culture of Japan and its being ‘tainted’ by the Western beliefs. Although he’s one of the most famous classic Japanese writers, I had never read any of Kafu’s works before and I fell madly in love with his prose and use of language (or, at least, its English translation that I read).

The second story, ‘Closet LLB’ by Uno Koji, recounts the tale of a man who loved literature and the arts but ended up studying law, only to discover that this profession is no more lucrative than his literary passion would have been, as he ends up living in a closet. The story is written in the very typical satyrical style of Uno, in the form of a fairy tale or fable, but with very realistic and not at all ideal situations. Although merely 18 pages long, this story manages to raise issues that still plague all of us today, such as being stuck in a job that doesn’t satisfy the individual and what a happy life constitutes of.

The third and final story is ‘General Kim’ by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, one of my favourite Japanese authors. This is the shortest of the three stories included in this volume, and yet I feel its message and impact is equally powerful as in the other two. It recounts the story of General Kim, a Korean soldier, and how he ends up saving his country from the ‘evil Japanese’. The story is told as a fable, as a piece taken from a mythology book, filled with fantastic elements such as decapitated bodies that still move, flying swords and all this nice stuff. At the very end, Akutagawa, with obvious irony, gives us his critique of such stories, claiming that history is filled with tales of triumph for the winners, however silly and laughable they might actually be.

Overall, I really enjoyed this collection. These stories might not be the best starting point for getting acquainted with these authors, but I think they were diverse enough to appeal to people of different tastes.

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Penguin Moderns: ‘Three Japanese Short Stories’, and ‘The Veiled Woman’

Three Japanese Short Stories by Akutanagawa and Others *** (#5)  9780241339749
I have not read much Japanese fiction that I have really enjoyed to date; rather, I tend to find it a little hit or miss, and usually a bit off the wall in its plotting for my particular taste. I was intrigued by this collection, however; it consists of ‘three beguiling, strange, funny and hair-raising tales of imprisonment, memory and atrocity from early twentieth-century Japan’, all of which have been newly translated by Jay Rubin. Overall, I found the collection difficult to pin down; I very much enjoyed the first story, but was not much of a fan of the second or third.

‘Behind the Prison’ by Nagai Kafu is told in the form of a letter, addressed to ‘my dearest excellency’. The narrator is a thirty-year-old man who, after living in the West, has returned to Japan to live ‘in a single room on my father’s estate, which is located behind the prison in Ichigaya.’ He describes quite how this came to be, when his greatest desire was to hide away amongst people who have no knowledge of him, or of his family. I found the writing in this story poetic, and quite absorbing.

The second story, ‘Closet LLB’, is a third person perspective story written by Uno Koji. It provides an account of an unambitious law graduate, whose only wish lies in becoming a novelist. He has delusions of grandeur about his person, and is both self-important and self-obsessed. This story was not quite to my taste; I found the character almost loathsome, and the tone of the narrative felt a little off to me.

The third and final story collected here is ‘General Kim’ by Akutanagawa Ryunosuke. This is rather a short story in comparison to those by the previous two authors. It follows two ‘powerful Japanese generals, who had crossed the sea to assess military conditions in the neighbouring kingdom of Korea’. In some ways, this was quite interesting, but it was also, almost overwhelmingly, bizarre.

 

9780241339541The Veiled Woman by Anais Nin **** (#6)
I adore what I have read of Nin’s work so far; I have read a few of her books, but have much of her oeuvre left to get stuck into. Here, ‘transgressive desires and sexual encounters are recounted in these four pieces from one of the greatest writers of erotic fiction’. These stories were first published in the 1970s, three of them taken from <i>Delta of Venus</i>, and one from <i>Little Birds</i>.

Nin writes incredibly well; the scenes which she depicts have a vividness and vivacity to them. Her female narrators feel realistic, and impart their deepest thoughts and desires to the reader. Nin’s character descriptions hum with life and richness; for instance, from ‘The Veiled Woman’: ‘She was extraordinarily lovely, with something of both satin and velvet in her. Her eyes were dark and moist, her mouth glowed, her skin reflected the light. Her body was perfectly balanced. She had the incisive lines of a slender woman together with a provocative ripeness.’

Nin’s visions are strange and unexpected. These particular stories are all quite highly erotic ones; it is a genre which ordinarily I would steer away from, but there is beauty in these tales regardless. The four stories here are perfect examples of the kinds of tales which Nin’s reputation has sprung from.

 

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